How Reading in a Second Language Protects Your Heart

Reading words in a second language spontaneously activates native language translations in the human bilingual mind. Here, we show that the emotional valence of a word presented in English constrains unconscious access to its Chinese translation. We asked native speakers of Chinese fluent with English to indicate whether or not pairs of English words were related in meaning while monitoring their brain electrical activity. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of the word pairs hid a sound repetition if translated into Chinese. Remarkably, English words with a negative valence such as “violence” did not automatically activate their Chinese translation, even though we observed the expected sound repetition priming effect for positive and neutral words, such as “holiday” and “theory.” These findings show that emotion conveyed by words determines language activation in bilinguals, where potentially disturbing stimuli trigger inhibitory mechanisms that block access to the native language. 

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